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PASSIONS

Casa California

For Diane Keaton and D.J. Waldie, Spanish Revival isn't a style, it's a way of life -- homes that not only document our grand past, but also embody our dreams for the future.

November 01, 2007|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

DIANE KEATON and D.J. Waldie are uncertain where to begin. It's an awkward moment at the end of an easy hour-and-a-half conversation about architecture, romance and modernism. She's self-conscious, and he's busy trying to set her at ease. Scattered across a large conference table in an equally large conference room in Lakewood are copies of photographs from the book they have spent nearly two years working on.

"I really don't want to do this," she says. A digital recorder sits conspicuously on the table in front of them, ready to capture their thoughts for the online feature that accompanies this story.

"Here's Leo Carrillo's rancho," Waldie points out. Before the "play" button is hit, he shuffles through the pages trying to find just the right series of images to inspire them. Before them drift bright stucco walls, craggy oaks, spindly yucca, cobalt-blue tile and long iron balustrades. Like friends meeting old friends, they greet each photograph with excited, if tentative, familiarity.

Their recently published book, "California Romantica," is the culmination of a lifelong obsession for Keaton and nearly two years of study for Waldie. Their collaboration is a love affair -- in words and in pictures -- with Spanish Revival architecture in Southern California.

If the partnership between this actor and this author seems a little unlikely -- she with her Hollywood credits, her "Annie Hall" accolades and long association with mansions such as these, and he with his job as public information officer with Lakewood, his memoir "Holy Land" and his modest life in the 957-square-foot home his parents purchased more than 50 years ago -- just get them talking, and the differences disappear.

The recorder is now on. "I wonder how this house . . . " Waldie muses over the photographs of Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, home to writers and intellectuals since the 1940s, " . . . on the edge of the Pacific felt to the emigres, like Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann and others who visited here as part of the emigre community in Southern California." His voice trails off. "I'm not sure."

Keaton picks up the thread. "One of the things that we focused on in this house is the surface. . . . In this one photograph, the stucco has a curved and also a kind of ladder effect with shadow underneath. It's a very abstract image. It's like a painting by Mondrian."

Waldie waits for her to finish. "A lot of what the book is about is about pattern," he adds. "That is a lot about what the interior design of these homes was about. Patterns of tiles. Patterns of brick work. Patterns of stucco. The patterns play with light that flows across it during the day. The patterns play with shadows. The shadows of trees and the landscaping."

"Time of day," she adds, "right, D.J.? Time of day."

Their duet continues breathlessly and is surprisingly well honed. She speaks with raw appreciation about the artistry and the details, and he takes a more philosophical approach that explores the meaning of these places in the lives of their owners.

Both of them, however, accept without irony or dissent the fact that this architecture, so emblematic of Southern California's storied past, is as relevant today as it ever was -- and more futuristic than its appearance suggests.

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LIKE all good California stories, this one begins behind the wheel of a car. Keaton was 11. It was the 1950s, and her father had piled the family in a Ford station wagon headed for Death Valley. At the northern end of that wind-scoured expanse, she discovered the first Spanish Revival -- aside from the family home in Santa Ana -- to steal her heart. It was Scotty's Castle, and that sprawling white dove sitting amid the sere cliffs began a lifetime of exploration.

Waldie's affection developed when a friend and he would set out in the 1970s in a Ford Pinto, later a Chevy Nova, with the goal of discovering architectural styles that no one else had yet found in places that were remarkable for being so ignored.

For both the hunt was as thrilling as the discovery, and the neighborhoods of Southern California were always fair game. Discovering the region's architectural heritage, however, is not always simple. It lies invisible on this flood plain, obscured by other more conspicuous objects of design and by trees and landscaping. Seeking it out can mean driving great distances or merely parting the bushes.

"California Romantica" is the result of Keaton's self-proclaimed obsession with Spanish Revival. After selecting 19 homes from San Diego to Santa Barbara, she worked with photographers Lisa Hardaway and Paul Hester to capture the essence of this style.

Known under a variety of names -- Mission, Andalusian, Monterey, Hacienda, land grant, Estancia, Rancho or Spanish -- Spanish Revival had its heyday in the early decades of the last century, but not all of the homes she selected are that old.

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